A tale of two foreigners in Japan

Reza's well-used Japanese-Persian and English-Persian dictionaries

Reza's well-used Japanese-Persian and English-Persian dictionaries

This is the first in a series of blog posts about my experiences undertaking an ongoing research project. In this series I will be detailing some of the methodological challenges I encounter as well as the strategies I adopt to deal with them. In this post I will explain how I came to meet one of my informants, the similarities and differences concerning our situations in Japan as foreigners, and how my interactions with him and his family provided me with the impetus for this research project.

I first met Reza (a pseudonym) in Osaka, Japan, about six or seven years ago. We were attending a BBQ for intermarried couples and their children that was being held in a local park. Superficially at least, the differences in our backgrounds couldn’t have been more striking. I hailed from Australia, while he was from Iran. I couldn’t (and still can’t) speak a word of his native Persian, and his proficiency in English has remained, over the years, virtually non-existent.

I’ve since located to a different part of Japan, but Reza and I have remained in contact. Although we meet less than once a year, we are invariably told by Japanese onlookers that the sight of the two of us using the brash, impetuous Osaka-ben (Osaka dialect of Japanese) – complete with a liberal peppering of the sorts of grammatical errors that only non-native speakers can make – as our lingua franca provides them with an immeasurable and endless amount of entertainment. I guess I’ve always been ambivalent about such attention and I don’t think of it as a performance. Moreover, while I’m not particularly concerned about whether or not Japanese onlookers necessarily perceive Reza and my “metroethnic” practices as “cool” (Maher, 2005; 2010), such behavior should, as Otsuji and Pennycook would have it, “lead us to question not only a one-to-one association among language, ethnicity, nation, and territory, but also the authenticity of ownership of language which is based on conventional language ideology” (2010, p. 241).

Nevertheless, the dissimilarities between Reza and I run deeper than just our mutual inability to speak each other’s native language. I think it’s fair to say that, as permanent residents, our experiences of Japan have been markedly different. I’m a ‘white’, tertiary-educated speaker of a language that enjoys a particularly privileged status in Japan; moreover, I have been able to forge a rather lucrative lifestyle for myself and my family in my adopted homeland primarily because of simply being able to speak that language. Conversely, Reza has done it tough here. As a non-English speaking foreigner, his employment prospects have been, in comparison to mine, somewhat limited. He has worked for many years in the construction industry, often for wages lower than his Japanese coworkers. As an Iranian in Japan, he has also had to deal with the sorts of racist, negative stereotypes that I have not been subjected to (McNeill, 2010).

Yet Reza and I also have much in common. We are both permanent residents. We both have Japanese partners. We both enjoy living in Japan immensely, and we also both enjoy, from time to time, a therapeutic whine about what we don’t like about the place. Significantly for this blog post at least, we are both ‘foreign’ fathers attempting to raise our children in a culture quite different from the cultures of our home countries. We both want our children to grow up well-adjusted, happy kids, and we both are finding the challenges of bilingual child-rearing considerably more difficult than we had first imagined.

Stay tuned…

ResearchBlogging.org Maher, J. C. (2005). Metroethnicity, language and the principle of cool International Journal of the Sociology of Languages (175-176)

McNeill, D. (Nov 9, 2010). Muslims in shock over police terror leak: Japan residents named in document want explanation – and apology – from Tokyo police force. Japan Times, p. 15.

Otsuji, E. and Pennycook, A. (2010). Metrolingualism, fixity, fluidity, and language in flux. International Journal of Multilingualism, 7(3), 240-253.

Author Lachlan Jackson

More posts by Lachlan Jackson
  • A fascinating research project, Lockie, and I look forward to the next post! The way Iranians (and many other nationalities from other parts of Asia) have been treated in Japan is quite disturbing and Japanese mass media continues to represent them negatively. The Wiki entry on ‘在日イラン人 (Iranian residents in Japan)’ has this statment (my translation): “As an increasing number of them (Iranian residents in Japan) are getting married to a Japanese national or becoming naturalised, the Iranian community is being dichotomised with one group of residents who break the law and the other group of residents who don’t.”

    I hope your research will shed light on the negative stereotypes of Iranians in Japan and reveal their impact on their everyday life.

  • Peter Ives

    Thanks for this Lachlan and I look forward to the future installments. Interestingly about 20 years ago, I had a similar experience in Iceland speaking Icelandic with my Austrian friend (although his English was near fluent and it is my first language — so for us our reasons for using Icelandic were different). Like you and Raza, we attracted significant attention, although usually negative with a humorous tone. My favourite was you sound like ducks on Tjornin (the pond in downtown Reykjavik) and quit bastardizing my language. I look forward to your future posts especially for what it tells us about ethnicity and language as well as parenting, children and language. Thanks,

  • Lachlan Jackson

    Thank you Peter for your kind words of encouragement. I will keep you posted…